Massachusetts has now seen 441 confirmed cases of the worrisome coronavirus variant that first emerged in Britain, officials said, as concerns lingered about another possible coronavirus surge driven by variants.
The state has also seen four cases of the variant that emerged in Brazil, and nine cases of the variant that emerged in South Africa, according to figures posted Tuesday evening on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website and confirmed by the state health department.
The CDC says the numbers are based on just a sampling of specimens and do not represent the total number of cases that may be circulating. The agency says it is “monitoring the situation closely.”
The British variant spreads more easily and quickly. Some studies have suggested it is also more deadly. CDC models project the variant will become the dominant strain in the United States by the end of this month or early April.
Officials are worried the variants could drive a new coronavirus surge even as the country races to get people vaccinated.
“The continued relaxation of prevention measures while cases are still high and while concerning variants are spreading rapidly throughout the United States is a serious threat to the progress we have made as a nation,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, warned in a briefing held Monday by the White House coronavirus response team.
Governor Charlie Baker has been loosening coronavirus restriction in Massachusetts. On Tuesday, testifying before a state legislative committee, he defended taking those steps even as the variants spread, saying the state was in a different position than other states.
“Obviously, we’re continuing to see variants here in Massachusetts, which is consistent with what people are seeing in other places,” he said. “But I think in some ways where we are in Massachusetts, both with respect to the case counts, hospitalizations, positive test rates, and all the rest, is not the same place that many other states are in. And, as a result, we’ve tried to tailor the decisions we’ve made to be consistent with that.”
The state’s case counts, hospitalizations, and positivity rate have all plummeted after the peak of the state’s winter surge. But they have ticked upward by varying degrees recently.
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said at the hearing the state was taking steps to address the threat caused by variants, including delaying the phaseout of the state’s contact tracing operation.
She said officials wanted “to see whether the variants increase the number of positive tests we have and greater need for contact tracing,” noting that contact tracers were currently at work on a Barnstable County cluster that was potentially caused by a variant.
Sudders said the state has relied mainly so far on the CDC to test samples for variants, while the state lab can do a small amount. In a fortunate development, she said, the Broad Institute is “coming up to speed” to do the genomic sequencing.
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.